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India: The Perils of Democracy

It is tempting to read metaphors into Corbu’s urban monuments stuck out there in the Punjabi plain. Each to his own preoccupations: Nirad Chaudhuri, the Bengali prophet of decadence, once compared Chandigarh to the Rolls Royces acquired and then abandoned by desert maharajas. 5 In his view, all forms of superior foreign civilization go to seed in the tropical sun. Others, younger and more to the left of the political spectrum, see Chandigarh as a mark of Indian subservience to Western models and masters. Yogendra Yadav, a political scientist in Delhi who complained to me about Chandigarh’s inauthenticity, was one of them. He told me that Corbusier “doesn’t exist in India, or in France, but inside ourselves.” This doesn’t mean that Indians of Nehru’s generation weren’t nationalists. They were, and often anti-Western too. (Interestingly, Corbu saw France and India as natural allies against “Americanism.”) But India, like most developing nations, has been prone to mimic those whose power it fears.

A young teacher at the College of Architecture told me how Corbu had become an Indian guru. “We follow his rules blindly,” the professor said. “That is our tradition.” Nothing in the main government buildings can be changed. And there it all is to this day, a little torn at the edges, but maintained with the same loving care Indians lavish on their Ambassador cars, modeled on the 1956 Morris Oxford. And one can see, scattered across India, gimcrack versions of Corbu’s designs: schools, banks, museums, apartment blocks, and so on. Some of them have remained empty. A museum curator in Delhi explained this to me with a shrug that expressed years of frustration: “In India, once a building goes up, it is recorded as being finished, without thinking about what to do with it.”

Khilnani regards Chandigarh as a failure. It never produced “a society of secular individuals or a modernist politics‌.” You see what he means right there in Sector 1. The Assembly, half of which is given to the legislature of Punjab and half to that of Haryana, is surrounded by steel fences and barbed wire, guarded by policemen with machine guns. You need a special permit to even get close to the temples of democracy. The reason for all this security is the car-bomb killing of Punjab’s chief minister by Sikh separatists two years ago. I was shown around by Sumit Kumar, secretary of the Secretariat. We stood in front of the Assembly and gazed across an immense plaza, a kind of concrete lake, on the other side of which you could make out the stark outlines of the High Court. Corbu designed the plaza as a meeting place for Chandigarh’s democratic citizens, who would gather there to discuss the politics of the day, like modern Athenians. It was deserted. Weeds sprouted here and there. “Security problems,” said Mr. Kumar. Did people come here before the terrorist attack? “Not really,” he said.

On one level, then, Chandigarh is the hollow shell of Indian democracy, a representation without content, a museum to the deadly rationalism of a French modernist architect and the naive optimism of the first Indian prime minister after Independence. Until this year, the citizens of Chandigarh didn’t even vote for their own local government. Chandigarh was governed directly from New Delhi. At best, this Indian Brasilia is a comfortable suburb for administrators and retired army officers, who dislike the squalid hurly-burly of urban India.

But there is, in fact, a little more to it. For once you get beyond first impressions, you notice how improvisation has humanized, and indeed “Indianized,” some of Corbu’s rationalism. Corbu designed huge car parks, at a time when the main form of transportation was the bullock cart. And wide shopping streets were built, instead of the customary open-air markets. Soon many of the car parks were turned into bazaars, not by architects but by ordinary citizens. “Non-planned development” is the phrase. The best examples of non-planned development are the slums, on the edges of town. There you can see not only the invasion of Corbu’s urban dream by poor, village India, but also signs that Nehru’s political ideals have actually worked after a fashion.

The slums are not called slums, but “colonies.” Poor workers were never supposed to stay in Chandigarh. After building Corbu’s monuments, they were meant to disappear to wherever they had come from. In fact, of course, they stayed, in illegal settlements which are really displaced villages. At first, the government would send in armed policemen to chase the people away and burn down their dwellings. But in time, as Nehru’s democracy took root, politicians began to see profit in the situation. In return for votes from the poor, they promised to legalize this colony and that. There were even cases where opposition politicians had slums set on fire, so they could promise to build them up again, if they got elected. In this rough and ready way, state patronage is beginning to seep down to the lowest castes, through their elected representatives.

You can tell a northern Indian slum by the presence of pigs rooting in the filth of the surrounding area, where men and boys squat in the grass to relieve themselves. I picked my way into a colony near the university, in the company of Mr. Kumar, looking immaculate in a cream suit, and a lawyer from the High Court, who held a white handkerchief to his nose. As slums in India go, this one was not so bad. Houses were made of mud and bricks. Some had roofs of corrugated iron. Many were covered in blue plastic sheets. Electricity was tapped from the wires passing overhead—illegally of course, but tolerated because of political protection. There were even TV sets. (“Television they want,” said Mr. Kumar, “but not schools.”) There was no sense of menace. People looked at us without interest. They were poorly dressed, the children often in rags. Many would have been Dalits, the lowest caste, whose traditional occupations, rag-picking, latrine-cleaning, sweeping, corpse-burying, and leather- curing, used to make them “untouchable.” The others would have been from “other backward classes,” or OBCs, who tend to be better off.

These people,” explained Mr. Kumar, “have the power now. The politicians don’t care two hoots about us.” Here he pointed at his cream-suited chest. “But these people are the majority in India, and they all vote.” He did not say this in anger. But he was worried. For, as he put it, “good men don’t get elected.” Unscrupulous low-caste demagogues, who make irresponsible promises to the poor, are now voted in. For good government, he went on, you need good people. But there were too many ill-educated scoundrels in Indian politics now. “When you appeal to your caste, you go up, and when you are rational, you are going down. That is the nature of our politics now.”

So Khilnani is probably right. The idea of the state as a patron has taken hold of the Indian imagination, though perhaps not quite in the way Nehru had intended. In the last ten years or so, politics has divided Indians more than ever along caste and regional lines. Nehru’s idea of India has disintegrated into ideas of being a Hindu, a Tamil, or a Dalit. But Khilnani makes another case, which demands a degree of liberal optimism. He says that “constitutional democracy has proved to be the most reliable instrument available” for “civilizing political power.” I like to believe that this is true. But India has a way of stretching one’s faith to the limit.


The death of Nehruvian secularism is sometimes given a precise date: December 6, 1992. Communal poison had been dripping into Indian politics before, but on that day a mob of Hin-du fanatics tore down an unused sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, called the Babri Masjid, because they believed that it had been constructed by Babur, founder of the Mughal dynasty, on the birth site of Ram, the myth-ical Hindu king. According to legend, there once had been a Ram temple there, and Hindu chauvinists vowed to “restore” it.

They came pouring into Ayodhya from other parts of Uttar Pradesh, as well as from Gujarat and Maharashtra in the west, Andra Pradesh in the center, and even Karnataka in the south—wild-haired, half-naked sadhus (Hindu ascetics), militant activists, urban youths in jeans and yellow headbands, true believers, and riffraff out for some violent sport. Most Muslims had fled, scared out of their wits by cars speeding through their neighborhoods, playing prerecorded sounds of riots and screams. For several years, the Hindu nationalists had been driven into a frenzy by politicians baying for Muslim blood on videos and cassette tapes, by TV soap operas about Ram and other Hindu heroes, and by stories in the press of Hindu “martyrdom,” after an earlier attempt to storm the mosque had ended in violence.

To egg them on further, there was the pseudoreligious procession of L.K. Advani, a former movie journalist and current leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who was driven, like a god-king, from Gujarat to Ayodhya in a Toyota dressed up as a chariot in a Hindu epic. The stated aim of the Hindu nationalists’ campaign was to build a new Ram temple on the site of the mosque. The real purpose was to mobilize a nationwide community of Hindus to vote for the BJP. The main challenge to Nehru’s vision came not from the hysterical mob but from politicians who had taken communalism into the mainstream of Indian politics.

By the time the rioters were dispersed on December 7, thirteen Muslim men and children, who had been unable to get away, had been murdered with knives and pickaxes. (Many more died in riots that erupted elsewhere.) More than twenty mosques were damaged. Muslim houses and shops were looted and burned to the ground. And the police, mostly low-caste Hindus, encouraged the mob by giggling at the violence or looking the other way. The looters sang a song in praise of Durga, the mother goddess. It went:

Mother, your sons are calling you. Come down; we shall cut our heads off and offer them to you. Bring your drinking bowl and we will fill it with blood. Listen to my pleas, Fulfil my wishes, Give me Ayodhya, give me Mathura, give me Kashi.6

Mathura is said to be the birth place of Krishna, the divine hero who married 16,000 milkmaids and fathered 160,000 children, and Kashi is the holy city of Benares, where another mosque was built by the Mughals on the site of a Hindu temple. Both are yet to be “liberated” by the Hindu mobs. The Benares mosque is closely guarded by armed police behind high fences.

Ayodhya is a complete contrast to Chandigarh: four hundred miles to the southeast of Corbu’s city, it is ancient, it is dirty, and it is full of temples, some of them very dilapidated, painted powder-blue, egg-yellow, or pistachio-green. It is located in the middle of Uttar Pradesh, the state in the Hindi belt which produced not just Nehru himself but eight of thirteen Indian prime ministers since independence. Muslims make up about 10 percent of the Ayodhya population, and until recent events they have lived there in peace. The clothes of Hindu priests are made largely by Muslim tailors. By the time I visited Ayodhya in October, most of the Muslims had come home. Local people didn’t want trouble, I was told. It had all been the work of “outsiders.”

  1. 5

    Hindustan Times Weekly, 1969.

  2. 6

    Quoted from an excellent book on the riots by Ashis Nandy, Shika Trivedy, Shaul Mayaram, and Achyut Yagnik, Creating a Nationality (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995).

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